DALLAS, TX— On Saturday, just after the anti-gun protest, I joined the NRA. Thirty bucks. It entitled me to a one-year subscription of American Rifleman and an entire weekend spent sinking deeper and deeper into a welcoming swamp of perpetual war.
The NRA denied our application for a press pass to their convention, but you could become a member right at the door of the enormous Dallas Convention Center and pick up your free camo Bass Pro Shops-branded swag tote bag and walk right in. This gathering of 80,000 armed faithfuls in the brash heart of the heartland is not just about guns and politics; it is an exercise in collective mythmaking, an annual affirmation of a story broad enough to set the contours of life for millions of Americans.
It’s the same story as God and Satan, cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys with guns—the story that life is the constant act of pushing away death as it reaches for your throat. Everyone must be reminded that a masked intruder lurks, in theory, around every corner, with, perhaps, murderous intent, and we cannot rule out the possibility that he is armed and, we must assume, dangerous, and that he is willing to kill you, or, who knows, your family, and maybe your wife, and to fail to prepare for this distinct possibility is to fail to do what needs to be done. No one must ever forget this. Or else this whole thing could fall apart.
Like all good wars, the NRA convention began with a blessing. This blessing was delivered on Friday afternoon to an arena full of die-hards by our lord, Donald Trump. (Have ever read Trump’s Twitter pronouncements and wondered to yourself, “Who actually buys this shit?” These are they.) The people in that arena composed a crowd that was more pro-Trump than the employees of the White House. Mike Pence, whose chief skill is his ability to look both left and right while reading off of a teleprompter without losing his steely squint, played the praise-singing warmup act, the worshipful acolyte to Trump’s Jesus. The president’s very presence was enough of a benediction for this arena full of persecuted souls, all of whom wore their resentments towards the greater society on their “Don’t Tread On Me” t-shirts.
The speech that would have excited the crowd most would have been to simply recite the lyrics of the national anthem on stage while periodically firing a pistol into the air. Trump did not do that, but he did fulfill his most important purpose, which was to validate the siege mentality of NRA members in his own incoherent way. “Your second amendment rights are under seeezzzjjhhh,” he intoned. “But they will never be under seeezzzjhhhwhile I’m president.”
A primary reason that tens of thousands of people trek to the NRA convention from around the country is to be assured that this siege—of the world against them—is ongoing. The time to lay down arms has not and will never come. The most important person of all to appear on stage that day was not a politician but a man named Stephen Willeford, a Sutherland Springs, Texas NRA member who ran out of his house last November to exchange gunfire with a mass shooter who had just killed 26 people in a Baptist Church. Willeford—notwithstanding the fact that nearly 50 people were already shot in that church and the gunman was leaving the scene and killed himself shortly thereafter—is the closest thing to a living embodiment of the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” theory of public safety. His opportunity to live this fantasy no doubt inspired envy in thousands of others inside that arena. And, standing at the podium in a purple shirt and black cowboy hat, he articulated the world view of everyone there.
“There’s three types of people,” Willeford said. “There’s sheep. There’s sheepdogs. And there’s wolves.” The NRA’s biggest source of power is the collective conviction of its members that they must be the sheepdogs, protecting the wayward sheep from all the lurking terrors. And if they don’t see any wolves? Well, the NRA can certainly make some up.
“They prey on fears that they manufacture.” The weekend’s most perceptive remark was made by a tall, slim Dallas-area imam, with mocha-colored skin and a well-trimmed beard. He was standing in the late afternoon sun, just hours after Donald Trump left town, on a stage just outside the entrance to Dallas City Hall, a building whose concrete facade juts aggressively forward from the ground, like an upside-down triangle. A procession of local faith leaders cursed Trump and the NRA and guns in general. The sane people of Dallas had shown up, but they were dreadfully small in number.
At 11am the next morning, the second of the weekend’s gun control rallies took place in the same spot, this time led by high school students and by Moms Demand Action and by the parents of Joaquin Oliver, one of the students killed in the Parkland shooting. Manuel Oliver, Joaquin’s father, is an artist, and painted a mural on a 20 foot-long sheet of plywood behind the stage, which included a small, human figure for each of the people killed at the school. And when the mural was painted, he took the stage in front of a silent crowd and held a microphone against the plywood. With a hammer he knocked a hole through each human figure, every stroke sending a sharp, flat report indistinguishable from a gunshot echoing across the concrete plaza. When that was done he place a yellow flower through each hole.
To the side of the stage, a video screen played an endless slideshow of victims of gun violence: an unremarkable picture of a person, with a simple caption saying where they were killed, and with what gun. If you watched the slideshow long enough you saw a photo of a handsome teen standing at the beach at sunset. “Joaquin ‘Guac’ Oliver, 17, killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Shot with an AR-15.”
The few hundred people at that demonstration dissipated around 11:30am, just in time for a group of about a dozen—I must say—nerdy-looking armed men to come strolling into the plaza that had just been left vacant. These were the local Proud Boys, toting Glocks, assault rifles, and a huge flag bearing the Texas slogan “Come and Take It.” Though their presence was rude, in the sense that they had explicitly come out to counter-protest parents of murdered children, they were not quite intimidating. They seemed to be a walking argument that if you owned a gun you did not need to give any thought to the rest of your personal appearance. Nor did their media strategy seem very sophisticated. “I was told it was at noon,” said their cowboy-hatted leader, gazing out at the empty plaza. “We just got here.”
These sorts of small groups of idiots who exist only to goad bystanders and draw media attention are as irresistible to reporters as they are meaningless. Each Proud Boy got interviewed and filmed and photographed and it all felt like a very stupid charade, in which I was taking part. I couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted to know that any of them could answer. Finally I asked one heavily tattooed guy carrying a camo assault rifle if he didn’t think that this whole thing might be a bit intimidating to the parents who had lost their kids. He shrugged. “I wouldn’t be intimidated,” he said. “People are intimidated by what they don’t understand. Like the Salem Witch Trials. People didn’t understand science.”
The Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in downtown Dallas has more than 700,000 square feet of unbroken exhibit space, a building large enough to have its own horizon. All weekend, if you stopped and closed your eyes and tuned out the murmur of the crowd inside, you would hear the NRA convention’s version of crickets, a ubiquitous background sound: CLICKclickCLICKclickCLICKclickCLICK. It was the sound of guns being dry fired, and it never stopped. For acres in every direction, men and women and couples and kids and plenty of PTSD-soothing dogs wearing “DO NOT PET” vests thronged display booths representing every imaginable aspect of making, modifying, and accessorizing guns. If you dimmed the bright overhead lights and sprinkled in some angry-looking Eastern Europeans, you would have a perfect arms bazaar set in a later Rambo movie. Instead, you had lots of men sprawled out on carpeted floors wolfing down snack bar hot dogs as an army’s worth of weapons lingered just beyond the recycling bins. It was one of the most unnatural scenes I have ever beheld on this earth.
You cannot purchase guns at the NRA convention. But you can handle, stroke, fondle, cock, aim, and dry fire virtually every weapon made by every major gun company in the world, each of them neatly tethered to curved display counters, like the cell phones at Best Buy. You could handle a $1,700 golden Desert Eagle with tiger stripes or gaze at a $15,000 golden customized Cabot Guns .45 automatic with TRUMP 45 carved in the side. You could heft hunting rifles and assault rifles and shotguns and enormous .50 caliber sniper rifles and stare right down the sights and—CLICK—pretend to pick off your fellow convention-goers one by one. You could strain your thumb trying to cock a $649 SAR .357 magnum, flip the slide on a cool stainless steel Kimber Micro 9 millimeter, trace the wall with the red laser sight of a Heckler & Koch P30SK as your sweaty hand slid awkwardly on the plastic handle, or stand discreetly at the Brownells booth and wave around a small pistol with an attached silencer so absurdly long that it felt embarrassing, like eating a foot-long hot dog in public.
It is not at all difficult to see how people fall under the spell of guns. As physical objects, they have an undeniable allure. Many red-blooded Americans buy guns for the same reason that they buy oversized watches and Jet-skis and motorcycles and ATVs with neon color schemes. There is something about a well-designed piece of metal with lots of precisely machined parts that serves as an irresistible siren call to Americans with testosterone in their veins. A Mossberg pistol grip pump shotgun is little more than a black metal tube with a big slide that you can cock that makes an extremely satisfying CLACK-CLACK sound—a sound that has hypnotized thousands of action movie directors and rap interlude producers. CLACK-CLACK. You are the Terminator. CLACK-CLACK. You are N.W.A. CLACK-CLACK. You are a man, and you are here to protect your home from ANY-goddamn-body, and you just WISH a motherfucker would try you now, because you have a little something for him. CLACK-CLACK.
An oversized Rolex merely hints that you have a big dick, but a Mossberg in the trunk proves that you can Fuck Anybody Up. It is not just gun company ads that sell guns; all of macho, muscular American culture does that. Every Hollywood movie and cop show and football stadium pregame fighter jet flyover has the effect of reinforcing the idea that this shit is badass. Even for a good liberal, a lifetime spent in the United States of America makes it almost impossible to pick up a handgun without slipping instantly into your own imaginary action movie scene. Whether at the NRA convention or at Walmart, the process of shopping for a gun, surrounded by lots of churchgoing folks chewing Texas’ Finest Jerky, could not be more normal. One gun is the most captivating thing you’ve ever seen; one thousand guns is just a hardware store.
You have to really make an effort to look down at that polished, clickety piece of metal and think about what it is. It’s a death machine. It allows you, for a few hundred bucks, to hold mortality in your hand. Some guns evince this quality more clearly than others. Assault rifles are utterly ludicrous machines, laughably unsuited to anything other than warfare, preying on the militaristic fantasies of people leading dreary suburban lives.
But even your standard .45 automatic carries menace that cannot be concealed. Some pistols are compact enough that you can almost convince yourself that their threat is a modest one. A .45 is heavy, and fills your hand, and its barrel, if you look at it from the bad end, seems almost as large as a shotgun’s. With a .45, it is immediately apparent that you are holding a cannon. And even as I admired the precision tooling of the Kimber CDP with the beveled wood grain handle, I knew that a flex of the finger and that short little tube could splinter my skull and blow my brains all the way across the far wall of that convention center.
That is what the ads for guns should say. That’s what they’re for.
The scariest guns of all, though, are the little .380 autos, which can fit in the palm of your hand. The more I wandered the floor of the NRA convention, the stronger the realization of just how many average Americans are probably walking around with handguns became. For less than $300 just about anyone can get a seven-shot Ruger LCP and stick it in their side pocket or the small of their back or in their specially designed Concealed Carrie™ handbag and you would never, ever, ever know it was there. And yet the volume and variety of these guns for sale drive home the fact that they are there. They are small, and deadly, and everywhere, anywhere. One booth had a mannequin with a motor attached, its arms and legs rotating constantly in a simulacrum of running, to demonstrate that PISTOLWEAR waistbands will keep your handgun snug against your belly as you go jogging. Even spandex is no impediment to concealed carry. The sheepdogs of America are prowling on every street.
Don’t you feel safe?
To induce so many people to be so into guns—not as a hobby, but as a lifestyle and a bedrock belief—requires that people be scared, always and everywhere. It requires people to believe that they must always be able to protect themselves, from something. Anyone who can profit off such a state of mind is drawn to gun culture whether or not they give a damn about guns per se. That is why the NRA convention hosted not just gun manufacturers, but sellers of knives, and pepper spray, and Tasers, and CRKT hatchets that are “Forged By War.” A hatchet forged by war is a product with objectively little mainstream appeal for the average America, but for people who bathe in paranoia, it does not seem like such an odd thing to buy. You never know when your guns might jam, while fighting off the Muslims.
This all-encompassing paranoia explains why the NRA convention hosted a lavish booth selling gold coins hauled up from a shipwreck, which offered brochures that asked, “Why are so many people rolling over their IRAs and 401ks into physical gold IRAs?” The only possible answer is that grandma has become truly senile—or, paranoia. Here, in the most powerful country in human history, in a time of unprecedented prosperity, low crime rates, and peace, paranoia reigns. That paranoia is lovingly tended by NRA leaders. It must be constantly stoked. Were the paranoia of gun culture to suddenly cease to exist, 80,000 people would blink up at the bright lights of the Dallas Convention Center and wonder to themselves: How did I get myself into this den of murder machines on such a nice, sunny day? And why am I holding a free copy of a consumer magazine with a cover that reads, simply, “Grenades!”
Just outside the back patio of the convention center is the Pioneer Park graveyard. Its most prominent feature is a Confederate monument: a high pillar with a Confederate soldier on top, and at each of its four corners, a statue of a Confederate general. “This stone shall crumble into dust ere the deathless devotion of Southern women be forgotten,” reads an inscription at its base. It would seem that the Confederates have gotten the last laugh. Their war has been over for 150 years, but their aggrieved spirit—the spirit of those who turned their desire to tyrannize others into a civil right—lives on, right inside the convention center, where the NRA proudly proclaims itself as America’s “oldest civil rights organization.”
As the attendees trickled out at the end of the day, one man glanced past the rows of police cars at a street free of any protesting parents of dead children. “It’s interesting,” he said to his wife as he strolled by. “The kooks didn’t really come out.”